Economic History of the Hutterian Brethren
Although material is abundant, a comprehensive study of this topic had never been made by the 1950s; but it would be of value to consult those studies which are named at the end of this article.
The details of the economic activities of the Hutterian Brethren changed greatly according to the degree of freedom experienced, but the underlying principles and general patterns were fairly uniformly held ever since the beginnings under Jakob Hutter in 1533. The climax of Hutterite life and their most complete carrying out of their communal principles fall in the "Good" and "Golden" periods, 1554-1592, mainly during the reign of the more lenient emperor Maximilian II (1564-1576, see Hapsburg). We are fortunate to possess a fairly graphic picture of the communal life at that time, called Beschreibung der Gemein Wohlstand (Wolkan, 331-338; Zieglschmid, 430-440), inserted into their Chronicle at the year 1569. Here the details of their social organization are described. We learn how a Christian community of goods was observed, how obedience and honor were given to the authorities of the world, how missions were established (Aussendung), also how Diener des Wortes and Diener der Notdurft were properly elected, etc. In short, the chronicler assures us, "We supported ourselves with all manner of occupations" (man nähret sich mit allerlei Handwerlk), and in addition served also the manorial lords in many ways. No member of the community was allowed to be idle. "It was like a big clockwork where one wheel drives the other, promotes, helps, and makes the whole clock function." Still more graphic is another simile offered by the Chronicles: such a Bruderhof is somewhat like a big beehive where all the busy bees work together to a common end, the one doing this and the other that, not for their own needs but for the good of all. This simile very characteristically hints at the essentially anti-individualistic attitude of the brotherhood. It was understood by all that hard physical labor for the common good (production) was expected of all, while at the same time consumption was restricted according to the principle of frugality as was befitting for a life of discipline and Christian obedience. Large-scale production and restrained consumption necessarily led to economic success or wealth of some sort, which almost inescapably led to jealousy and slander on the part of the surrounding population (see Christoph Andreas Fischer). The repute of the wealth of the Brethren (in their best time they numbered about 15,000 baptized members) spread as far as to the Emperor’s court in Vienna; everyone knew or claimed to know that they bury "great treasures" to hide them from the authorities. Most likely that was true to a certain extent, but should be understood as an act of prudence (in absence of a banking system) in anticipation of times of hardship and persecution. During the period of the Turkish Wars (1605-1606) and again during the early years of the Thirty Years' War (1618-1622) almost all their savings were confiscated by the government. Yet one generation later Grimmelshausen reports again of their considerable wealth in equipment, livestock, and all the rest in their new Bruderhofs in Slovakia. (Zieglschmid concluded that this was in Mannheim rather than in Slovakia.) We know from Max Weber's sociological analysis that this situation is typical of all "ascetic Protestantism" or "inner-worldly asceticism," such as can also be observed in Puritanism or later Pietism. Grimmelshausen reports that he saw the craftsmen-brethren at work in their shops "as if they had hired themselves out for pay." Since no one could go about without contributing his share to the common weal, doing it with greatest conscience and discipline, the net result was a rational establishment of great efficiency, something otherwise completely unknown in Europe in the 16th and early 17th centuries, where the factory system had not yet been established. It might be helpful to stress here that there was absolutely no motivation for such organization from the profit angle, since the basic economic philosophy of the Brethren was that of stewardship of all earthly possessions (Correll, Chapter 2), requiring a dedicated care for and optimal organization of all work along certain previously laid out rational plans. In this regard Hutterite communism is truly unique in the entire history of Christian sectarianism.
As to the social status of the Hutterian Brethren one cannot call them either peasants or craftsmen, and it would be misleading to derive their basic Christian convictions from their social background. Theirs was neither a peasant's Christianity nor a craftsman's Christianity (see Dedic, Peachy, also Friedmann, Mennonite Quarterly Review 1946, 153 f.). Anyone who joined the brotherhood had to learn a craft or had to accept his particular assignment, often very different from his former background. That belongs to the pattern of "ascetic Protestantism" with its prevailing rational order and subsequent tendency toward saving (asketischer Sparzwang). All money earned was considered as part of the working capital (Betriebskapital), and not as wealth, and its management was entrusted to the bishop (Vorsteher), to the manager (Diener der Notdurft), and sometimes to the buyers (Einkäufer). In many regards the entire economic organization and pattern was not unlike that of the medieval monastery, with the one difference that for the Hutterites married life was not only favored but almost required.
The education of the growing generation of the Bruderhof tended to make these young people fit into this accepted pattern: industriousness, care, uttermost honesty, frugality, solidity of work, and reliability were the main virtues stressed in their economic pursuits, likewise selflessness and concern wherever required. Luxury was out of the question, it was simply not valued, hence no longer desired. All crafts were strictly regulated, and these regulations, not unlike medieval guild-regulations, were ever and again read before the assembled groups (see Folk Arts, also Gemeindeordnungen).
The economic activities of the Brethren may best be divided into two distinct areas: (1) those within the Bruderhofs, including such activities as the pottery kilns and the bathhouses, and (2) those performed outside, on the estates of manorial lords or even in some cities (where occasionally Brethren-surgeons were found to be active).
(1) On the Bruderhof we may again distinguish between the farm activities proper, the care for food, shelter, and clothing (in this regard the Hutterites of today continue these practices as of old: see Bertha Clark's study), and the different crafts which brought in some needed cash for farm enlargement and the paying of taxes. As far as the farms were concerned, we meet here again the rationality of a large-scale enterprise. Nothing was wasted; everything was carefully used. For instance, hides came from the slaughterhouse to the tannery, and from there to the harness makers, cobblers, pouch makers, etc. Wool was sent to the women who spun it and then sent it on to the weavers or cloth makers and thence to the tailors. Since cooking was done for the entire Bruderhof (150 to 200 adults plus all the children) utmost economy was possible and practiced. Diener der Notdurft, without ever having learned modern techniques of shop organization, soon developed an admirable tradition of efficiency, on the farm level supported also by the Weinzierl, the foreman or work clerk who supervised all agricultural labor.
As to the crafts, it is truly amazing how these Brethren developed skills otherwise nearly unknown in these early centuries of modern times. Besides, their pottery ware (now called Habaner faiences: see Ceramics) reveals a taste for the shapely and aesthetically appealing which made them stand out in this craft and true competitors of the Italian (later also Dutch) fayence or majolica ware. In the main this particular craft was developed primarily for cash sale and not so much for Bruderhof needs. The research of F. Hruby shows how much the nobles appreciated these products. Another cash product of high quality was the knives and cutlery wares of finest steel, again somewhat unique in the 16th century. Both crafts continued to be practiced among the Habaner (apostate descendants of the Hutterites) in Slovakia until after World War I, although among the Brethren in Transylvania, Russia, and later America this skill died out completely. Hruby tells of additional skills of the Hutterites otherwise little practiced in their days: thus we hear of an artistic clock sold for 170 talers to an Austrian archduke, and another one sold to Cardinal Dietrichstein. Famous were also the Hutterite carriages, which were much in demand among the Moravian nobility. Likewise much appreciated were their new-fashioned iron bedframes. In short, the nobles knew only too well why it was advantageous to protect these industrious Brethren and why they ignored as far as possible the repeated persecution orders from the Viennese government or from the counter-reformatory clergy.
A unique activity of the brethren was also their bathhouses and their barber-surgeons and physicians (see Sommer and Friedmann). They worked for a high standard of hygiene and health among the Brethren, and likewise attracted many lords and their families from the surrounding areas. Christoph Andreas Fischer was most enraged about this fact. "Every Saturday their bathhouses are filled with Christians [Catholics]," he writes, "and not only the ordinary man but also the lords run to them if they need any drug, as if the Anabaptists were the only ones who understand this art." All these facts explain why the Brethren thrived even after 1592 (the end of the "Golden Age" period) when the Counter Reformation set in with full force and wars raged over the country (Turk invasion).
(2) Not less important were the economic activities of the Hutterites outside their Bruderhofs. There were two motives for it: the Brethren needed additional cash (all earnings of individual workers were pooled in a common purse), and even more the Brethren needed the favor of their noble manorial lords, whom they were willing to serve in many capacities, thus demonstrating their indispensability. This latter point was one of the strongest arguments for toleration in Moravia. Manifold were the services of the "hired-out" brethren: they were managers of the farms (Meier), vineyards (Winzer), wineries (Kellner), mills (Müller), sawmills, etc. There was hardly any noble estate in Southern Moravia and adjacent Slovakia which did not have one or several brethren in its service. Due to their excellent preparation and moral qualities, these men quickly gained the utmost confidence of the lords and the respect of those who worked under them. This is incidentally also true after 1622, the fateful year of "complete" expulsion from Moravia. There was practically no one who could take their place, and in spite of increasingly sharp mandates we find Brethren working on manorial estates in Moravia as late as 1630, and occasionally even 1640.
Not less significant was the service of the Brethren in the field of surgery and medical care; time and again we hear of Brethren doctors employed by the one or other lord (Cardinal Dietrichstein, the head of the Counter Reformation in Moravia, always called a Hutterite for such service), or in some resort places such as the mineral springs of Trenchin in Slovakia. We do not know exactly the inside story of these services to the “world” and their economic implications, but the motives of service and gaining favorable public opinion seem to have prevailed also in this field.
Very interesting are Hruby's studies concerning the financial situation of the Brethren, their cash reserves, and the way they were taxed and finally deprived of all their savings (capital). Around 1570 (Golden Age) the Brethren had to pay a 2 per cent tax of all house-assessed valuation for the needs of Moravia (about 10 guilders or florins per house). Besides this they also had to pay a poll tax (Kopfsteuer) and a tax on home-brewed beer. The house tax steadily increased; in 1600 it was already 100 fl. per house and in 1608-1610 even as high as 160 fl. The government was always in need of money for military purposes; since the Brethren refused to pay war taxes, the amounts were simply requisitioned in the form of cattle, horses, or casks of wine. (Wolkan, Geschicht-Buch, 309 [to 1579] and 428 [to 1589.]) In 1602-1605, during the Turkish invasion which did also so much harm to the Bruderhofs, the need of the Hapsburgs for more money grew immensely. In 1602 the government requisitioned 7,000 guilders, and in 1604 the emperor asked for a "loan" of 20,000 guilders, which, however, was never attained. The request for money became more and more urgent as the great catastrophe of the Thirty Years' War approached. Cardinal Dietrichstein and imperial messengers exerted unbelievable pressure upon the Brethren to extort all the money possible. In 1621, finally, the authorities prevailed upon the Vorsteher Rudolf Hirzel to divulge the hiding place of their money. A total of 30,000 fl. thus fell into the hands of the Cardinal and Emperor Ferdinand II (Hruby, 91; Geschicht-Buch, ed. Wolkan, 576-88, ed. Zieglschmid, 766-80). The story of this confiscation is one of the most exciting in the long history of the Brethren. The Chronicle admits, however, that there was still some money left (which Hirzel did not know), buried somewhere in the fields. Hruby estimates that prior to 1619 the Brethren might have possessed around 60,000 fl., but he calculates that this sum was by no means exorbitant as it represents the working capital of a community of about 15,000 Brethren, or about 5 fl. per member. Eventually, in 1622, the Brethren had to leave Moravia altogether, leaving behind practically everything, 24 Bruderhofs with their entire inventory of grain, wine, 200 head of cattle, 150 horses, 655 pigs and hogs, all furniture and kitchen utensils, woolen material, linen, tools, and all shop equipment. Ignoring the value of the houses, gardens, fields, and meadows, the Brethren estimated the value thus lost at at least 364,000 talers (Geschicht-Buch, ed. Wolkan, 570-71).
In spite of this very tangible loss and the ever-increasing fury of war (with plundering, etc.), the Brethren were able to start to rebuild their communal life in nearby Slovakia, where about one generation later Grimmelshausen found them prosperous again and well organized (under the last great Vorsteher Ehrenpreis). The 18th century, then, saw a decline of both the religious and the communal life of the Brethren and the enforced conversion of most Brethren to Catholicism (see Habaner). (The total decline of the Habaner came after World War I in the new state of Czechoslovakia.)
In Transylvania the Bruderhofs were never as flourishing as those in the Moravian and Slovakian area. Then, around 1760, came the great exodus from the Hapsburg empire into Walachia and Russia, and now the Brethren became exclusively farmers. Although they were still sober and industrious, their previous well-being was gone, and thus also their remarkable skills and crafts.
In 1874-1878 the Brethren settled in the United States, partly with money borrowed from the Rappites (New Harmony people). Miss Clark, who reported on the Hutterite colonies in 1924, gives a description as if visiting 16th century Bruderhofs in Moravia. The only difference is that now the Diener der Notdurft or Haushalter is called "boss." He handles all money, he has the keys to all storage rooms, and he organizes the work plan of the entire community. Under him we find the foremen of the farm, mill, carpentry, forge, bootery, etc. Money is only used in contacts with the "world." Needless to say that since there is no private possession, nothing can be bequeathed to one’s children (save, perhaps, some handwritten old books). All savings are used to buy more land or machinery. Every Bruderhof is supposed to be self-supporting, although loans are known between the colonies. Crafts are no longer practiced except for the immediate needs of the colony. Today the Brethren accept farm machinery and thus their economy has become fairly thrifty again. Idleness is practically unknown, but so is also haste and rush. To avoid monotony, all work rotates among the Brethren within a certain time. In spite of their peaceful attitude it yet happens now and then that neighboring groups oppose their extension and their land buying (Saskatchewan); the old suspicion and jealousies, which prevailed so long in Moravia, have not yet completely died out.
Clark, Bertha W. "The Hutterian Communities." Journal of Political Economy (1924).
Correll, Ernst. Das Schweizerische Täufer-Mennonitentum. Tübingen, 1924.
Dedic, Paul. "Social Background of the Austrian Anabaptists." Mennonite Quarterly Review 13 (1939): 5-20.
Friedmann, Robert. "Hutterite Physicians and Barber-Surgeons." Mennonite Quarterly Review 27 (1953): 129-236.
Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe; Schneider, 1913-1967: v. II, 105 ff.
Hruby, F. Die Wiedertäufer in Mähren. Leipzig, 1935. The most important source for Hutterite economic history.
The Hutterites and Saskatchewan, a study of inter-group relations. Regina, 1953.
Loserth, Johann. "Der Communismus der mährischen Wiedertäufer im 16. and 17. Jahrhundert: Beiträge zu ihrer Lehre, Geschichte and Verfassung." Archiv für österreichische Geschichte 81, 1 (1895).
Müller, Lydia. Der Kommunismus der Mährischen Wiedertäufer. Leipzig, 1928.
Peachey, Paul. "Social Background . . . of the Swiss Anabaptists." Mennonite Quarterly Review 18 (1945): 102-127.
Sommer, J. L. "Hutterite Medicine and Physicians." Mennonite Quarterly Review 27 (1953): 111-127.
Weber, Max. Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism. (German 1905, English 1930)
Wolkan, Rudolf. Geschicht-Buch der Hutterischen Brüder. Macleod, AB, and Vienna, 1923.
Zieglschmid, A. J. F. Die älteste Chronik der Hutterischen Brüder: Ein Sprachdenkmal aus frühneuhochdeutscher Zeit. Ithaca: Cayuga Press, 1943.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 143-145. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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